Have you ever wondered about the women of the past and the great feats they had accomplished many of which were never recorded in history? Margery Kempe also known as Margery Kempe of Lynn was born around 1373 and died somewhere after 1438. She was an English Christian mystic who wrote The Book of Margery Kempe. It is considered to be the first autobiography ever written in english. She wrote about her daily life, her many pilgrimages to the Holy Land and European sites. She also wrote about her conversations with God.
Not much is known about the early life of Margery Kempe. She was born Margery Burnham of Brunham around 1373 in Bishop’s Lynn (now King’s Lynn), Norfolk, England. John Brunham, her father, was a merchant and also the mayor of the town and a member of parliament. It is gleaned from the records of Lynn that her brother may have been in parliament as well. It is also suspected that Margery Kempe’s father may have lost a great fortune in the wool trade of the time. The are no surviving records identifying who her mother was. There was no records of her education; but, she was raised a Catholic and the priest more than likely read religious works to her during her formative years.
Margery Kempe married John Kempe in 1393; they had 14 children. John Kempe was also a merchant, the mayor of the town, and member of parliament. Together they operated a grain mill and a brewery. They were a prominent middle class family of the area during the middle ages.
It is believed that Margery Kempe had severe post partum depression after the birth of her first son; which, resulted in a series of visions she received from God. These visions helped through her depression. “During her illness, Margery claims that she envisioned numerous devils and demons attacking her and commanding her to “forsake her faith, her family, and her friends” and that they even encouraged her to commit suicide.” These various visions of Christ and other religious phenomena would have her seeing things and smelling some strange odors. Today, she would most probably be diagnosed as schizophrenic; but, back then, it was not uncommon to have religious visions. She prayed for chastity and finally convinced herself and her husband to take a vow of chastity. “Margery did not join a religious order, but carried out “her life of devotion, prayer, and tears in public”. Indeed, Margery’s visions provoked her public displays of loud wailing, sobbing, and writhing which frightened and annoyed both clergy and laypeople. At one point in her life, she is even imprisoned [for heresy]by the clergy and town officials, and threatened with the possibility of rape; however, Margery does not record being sexually assaulted.”
It is recorded that sometime in 1413, Margery Kempe did seek the advice of an anchoress to determine if her visions were real. This religious lady, anchoress Julian of Norwich confirmed them to be real.
In 1414, Margery Kempe made pilgrimages to Rome, Santiago de Compstela in Spain, Norway, and the Holy Roman Empire (Germany).
Margery Kempe’s autobiography
It appears that Margery Kempe was not able to write so she employed two scribes to do the writing of her autobiography for her. One of the scribes died and his handwriting was impossible to make out. The other original manuscript was lost in the 15th century; there still exists a copy of it which was found in a private library in 1934, and now is housed in the British museum since 1936. It is published in modern english and middle english as well. The book is considered to be a personal, religious and social commentary. Her legacy brings to life the life of laywomen in the middle ages. According to Wikipedia, “Kempe and her Book are significant because they express the tension in late medieval England between institutional orthodoxy and increasingly public modes of religious dissent, especially those of the Lollards.”